Don’t Learn Karate for Self-Defense

Recent conversations with many of my peers have circled around the same topic of discussion: how to streamline Karate’s traditional strategies and techniques into a method that works effectively and consistently for modern self-protection. This movement has been termed “New Wave” Karate[1] by some of my contemporaries, which is a term I love to distinguish between the mainstream methods established in the 20th Century—traditional Japanese Budo and competition-based sport.

All of Karate History, explained clearly in four boxes.

Inevitably, my conclusion will piss off many within the traditional martial arts community. If your primary or exclusive purpose for training is self-defense, you shouldn’t bother with Karate.

The Burden of Proof:

There is no question that all traditional martial arts are derived from practices that once proved effective in the historical context of their societies. In Karate’s case, numerous narratives exist to validate the efficacy of Toudi in old Okinawa[2]. Every shred of historical evidence suggests that these practices once worked, but how does that translate to the 21st Century?

I would argue, generally not well. There is a tendency for traditional martial artists to look at the past through rose-coloured glasses, idealizing past masters who, granted, were considered expert fighters for their time, but probably wouldn’t be noteworthy if transported via time machine to today’s epoch. Of course, embellishment and self-serving exaggeration tends to influence the stories told about the old masters, to the point where they are reported to have had abilities bordering on superhuman[3].

In the past, martial arts knowledge and fighting skill was extremely exclusive, usually limited to the noble class within society; today, widespread access to training has made the market much more competitive. The rising tide raises all boats, but practices stuck in the quagmire of the past seem to be sinking relative to others that are free from the burden of tradition.

Particularly in Karate, there is also the challenge that comes from broken telephone between cultures and generations. The transformation that Karate went through in early 20th Century Japan placed more focus on solo callisthenic exercises[4]—kihon drills and endless repetitions of kata—for the purpose of developing social conformity and fighting spirit to reflect the increasingly militaristic nature of their society[5] in the buildup to WWII. In that process, applications for the kata were not emphasized, and therefore many sequences and techniques remain ambiguous or impractical for self-defense application[6].

Knowing what we know about the human body and the nature of physical violence, we can reconstruct more functional applications for kata than the wildly impractical scenarios that dominated 20th Century Karate. However, we can’t guarantee historical authenticity, and, far more importantly, many of the “practical” kata applications developed (notably, mostly by practitioners outside of Japan) still don’t hold up exactly as designed under aggressive resistance from a partner. A lot of adjustment and improvisation are required beyond the templates contained in the kata, and those things are usually not instructed in the Dojo.

There are also glaring inconsistencies and contradictions within the tradition. An example of this is the common Karate stance Kosa-dachi. In sparring, we are taught to never cross our feet while striking at long-range; in kata, we are frequently encouraged to do just that. Granted, Kosa-dachi can be usefully applied as a grapevine while standing or a half-guard/lockdown on the ground, as well as a transitional stance when setting up a throw such as Ippon Seionage or Ogoshi. These are plausible for self-defense, but there are many kata templates where what you’re doing with your upper body makes it virtually impossible to utilize these applications to explain the sequence as a whole.

In a few cases, the old masters documented specific practices that they considered worthwhile, such as Motobu Choki’s twelve Kumite drills[7], or the 48 self-defense diagrams from The Bubishi[8]. While some of these can be implemented immediately and with relative ease, there is also a lot of historical baggage. Many techniques or strategies have to be modified significantly to make them work, which begs the question: if your primary purpose is self-defense, why spend time tinkering with traditional practices to make them realistic? Instead, it might be in your best interest to simply study methods that work to begin with. If you have a round hole and a round peg, why waste time whittling down the square peg to make it fit?

When it comes to functional self-defense, the burden of proof is squarely on our community to prove that Karate’s traditional practices work consistently under duress. So far, the jury is still out.

The Quickest Way Between Two Points

Many contemporary pioneers are innovating within Karate to transform the tradition into something that remains relevant in the 21st Century. However, if your aim in training is self-defense, it makes little sense to delve into the past, explore traditional practices, then revolutionize and update them to fit modern society. It’s much easier to just start in the present.

Krav Maga is a good example of this approach. Granted, it heavily emphasizes striking the groin, the efficacy of which is a topic of some debate amongst self-defense experts[9].

As this video points out, striking the groin is one possible tactic that might work, but we should never put all our eggs in one basket.

However, everything within the Krav curriculum is aimed at the singular purpose of self-protection. It deals with modern scenarios such as knife and gun defenses, which are largely neglected in traditional martial arts, or, in the case of knife disarms, often done horribly.

Um . . . I have no words for this.

Krav also touches on legal implications, psychological elements, and tactical decision-making (such as when a threat is significant enough to warrant pre-emptive violence) which are notably absent from many other martial arts that claim to be all-encompassing self-defense systems.

I’ve seen novices develop scary skills within six months to a year of training in Krav. In Karate, at six months, most new practitioners are still learning stances, kata, blocks, and have barely touched a partner, let alone performed techniques under aggressive resistance. The insistence on the traditional approach to skill development in this case hinders Karate more than it aids it.

No single martial art is always the answer; good martial arts can still be done badly, if the instructor isn’t competent or the students don’t apply the lessons correctly. However, for self-defense, you should be looking for a lean system—the excess fat of peripheral, impractical methods derived from “tradition” should be stripped away. In many Dojos, Karate is undergoing that transformation, but the reality is that there is still a lot of trimming left to be done.

That would mean:

  • removing all impractical or inexplicable kata templates
  • limiting kihon practices to developing mechanics that support functional, rather than aesthetical movements
  • revising traditional stances to make them match exactly how you stand while applying realistic techniques against aggressive resistance
  • removing the common, but stupid myths and misconceptions about technical applications (i.e. Nukite to the solar plexus), and
  • pressure testing the remaining templates to ensure they work against resisting partners of various sizes and strengths.

If you have a starting point and an end point, the most direct path will get you there quickest. However, by diverging into various interpretations of tradition, we often head on several detours before we get anywhere close to the destination.

Conclusion:

I don’t mean to say that training in Karate will not provide you some benefit in self-defense in comparison with doing absolutely nothing. Virtually any training that gets you used to experiencing physical violence will improve your self-protection skills to a degree. Even within the most traditional of Karate Dojo, there is some content that is practical, though it is often embedded within a myriad of unrealistic scenarios, leaving the learner to sort the wheat from the chaff.

What I would argue is that Karate’s purpose in modern society is largely academic and historical, not practical. If your sole purpose in martial arts is to learn how to defend yourself, Karate is simply not the quickest option to reach your goal.


[1] Brannbacka, Ante and Jyrki Innanen. “Two Karateka and a Bottle of Whiskey: Part 3.” <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4NZHvSbqMgw> 2021.

[2] Kim, Richard. The Classical Man. Masters Publication, 1982.

Kim, Richard. The Weaponless Warriors. Ohara Publicatons, 1974.

Nagamine, Shoshin. Tales of Okinawa’s Great Masters. Tuttle Publications, 2000.

Bishop, Mark. Okinawan Karate. Tuttle Publishing, 1999.

[3] Bishop, Mark. Okinawan Karate. Tuttle Publishing, 1999. Pg. 140.

Kim, Richard. The Weaponless Warriors. Ohara Publications, 1974. Pg. 87.

Nagamine, Shoshin. Tales of Okinawa’s Great Masters. Tuttle Publishing, 2000. Pg. 2-6.

[4] Lowry, Dave. The Karate Way. Shambhala Publications, 2009. Pg. 153.

Willoughby, Paul. “Kata Bunkai”. Shotokan Karate Magazine, issue 101. SKM Publications, 2009. Pg. 26.

Nagamine, Shoshin. “Tale of a Great Bujin.” Karate: My Art. International Ryukyu Karate Research Group, 2002. Pg. 45.

Sasaki, Gogai. “Secret Fighting Techniques”. Tanpenshu: The Untold Stories of Gichin Funakoshi. International Ryukyu Karate Research Society, 2006. Pg. 28.

McCarthy, Patrick. The Bible of Karate: Bubishi. Tuttle Publishing, 1995. Pg. 11.

[5] Lowry, Dave. The Karate Way. Shambhala Publications, 2009. Pg. 122.

Sidney, James. The Warrior’s Path: Wisdom from Contemporary Martial Arts Masters. Shambhala Publications, 2003. Pg. 8.

Bishop, Mark. Okinawan Karate: Teachers, styles, and secret techniques. Tuttle Publishing, 1999. Pg. 7.

McCarthy, Patrick. Ancient Okinawan Martial Arts, Volume B. Tuttle Publishing, 1999. Pg. 44, 73.

[6] Lowry, Dave. Essence of Budo. Shambhala Publications, 2010. Pg. 155.

Cook, Harry. Shotokan Karate. Page Bros. Ltd, 2009. Pg. 259.

[7] Motobu, Choki. “Twelve Kumite Drills of Motobu Choki.” Karate: My Art. International Ryukyu Karate Research Group, 2002. Pg. 53-61.

[8] McCarthy, Patrick (Trans.) Bubishi: The Classical Manual of Combat. Tuttle Publications, 2008. Pg. 204-229.

[9] “The Myth of the Groin Strike: Why It Doesn’t Necessarily End the Fight.” < https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hQ5E6g5m94c> 2017.

2 thoughts on “Don’t Learn Karate for Self-Defense

  1. Sensei
    Very good article. I believe “ karate” has its place in the fighting arts. To me it’s finding out where that is . After reading a book 12 years ago changed my views on “ dojo” training. It’s part of a bigger whole . Self defence is a study of its own for sure .

    Like

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